By Ronnie Ellis
Feb. 11, 2013 — The first full working week of the 2013 General Assembly was again full of apparent determination by all parties to change the working atmosphere.
But there were hints of disagreement beginning to show.
Gov. Steve Beshear called for tax reform during his annual State of the Commonwealth address, saying he was unwilling to take up pension reform without the security of new funding to adequately fund education after five years of budget cuts.
But the message was less than warmly received by Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he thinks pension reform must be done now and can be done “without exposing the taxpayer to more liability.”
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said Beshear’s talk of “investment” made him nervous that the governor might want to “grow government again.” And House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said the speech was “as predictable as the sun coming up” and said Beshear offered no specific agenda or solutions.
But there was action by both chambers on priorities each had established.
On Thursday, the Senate passed a bill based on recommendations of pension reform task force. There wasn’t a whole lot of debate and it passed 33-5. But while the bill lays out changes for future hires in the type of system they’ll pay into, it only states the legislature’s “intent” to fully fund the system beginning next year — the key recommendation of the task force.
Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo pointed to the absence of an identified source for the $327 million or so it will take for that contribution and said without a dedicated source of revenue, the prospects of passage aren’t terrific in the House.
That was also the reservation expressed by the five senators who opposed the bill and a concern expressed even by some who voted for it.
On Friday, the House passed House Bill 1, a bill to require special taxing districts to provide financial accountability, on a vote of 99-1. So far, there has appeared no real opposition to the measure in the Senate but there are at least a couple of senators who have expressed some reservation about the impact of the bill on some districts.
The House also passed a bill authorizing public universities to issue bonds for construction projects and pay off those bonds through revenues the universities generate. No direct tax dollars are involved. Six universities will construct 11 facilities — from academic buildings to residence dormitories to upgrades to the University of Kentucky football stadium — totaling $363 million.
The House and Welfare Committee on Thursday approved a bill which in previous years would have been considered dead on arrival — a statewide smoking ban in all indoor workplaces and public accommodations.
Such statewide bans exist in 29 states, but tobacco was once the principal agricultural product for thousands of Kentucky farmers. The bill now must pass the House where Stumbo supports it. But even if it passes the lower chamber, it faces an uncertain fate in the more conservative Senate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee sent to the Senate floor a bill which would allow convicted felons to seek DNA testing of evidence to prove their innocence. Currently in Kentucky, only death row inmates are allowed to pursue such a remedy.
Sponsor Sen. John Schickel told the committee he was shocked to learn others couldn’t try to prove their innocence through DNA testing and called the bill “a matter of justice.”
But a substitute version of the bill, approved by the committee, would exclude those who accepted Alford Pleas (not an admission of guilt but rather concession the evidence is sufficient to convict the defendant) or those who pleaded guilty.
Some attorneys on the committee and a representative of the Innocence Project, a group which advocates for such tests, contended there are sometimes reasons an innocent person may plead guilty.
Lawmakers return Monday for the ninth day of the 30-day, non-budget session which occurs in odd-numbered years. On tap Monday is an anticipated hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee about a bill to authorize industrial hemp.
Expected to appear in support of the bill are Republican Sen. Rand Paul, Republican U.S. Congressman Thomas Massie and Democratic U.S. Congressman John Yarmuth.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.